Where to start? This blog entry is long overdue. I got back from Madison, WI and things just snowballed, in a good way. (Upgrades to our initial build are here)
The Vision: The thoughts for the build came from lots of late night research, typing things into Google and reading fellow “van life” blogs like those of Traipsing About and Sprinter Van Diaries. To know my wife is to know her obsession with the water, ocean, boats and everything related and this contributed to the look, feel & color pallet. Other ideas came from talking with my friend Chad and visiting OutsideVan’s facility/operation in Hood River, OR back in January. The original thought was to source the build to Van Works in Forth Collins, CO (great guys with a wealth of knowledge to share. Barry is at the helm and he’s great to work and brainstorm with) and/or OutsideVan. However, the estimates where a reality check and mind boggling, not to mention the 3+ month turnaround times. I believe in paying good money for good work and expertise, but the more I researched building it out myself, the more I realized I was capable of doing this on my own, especially with my background of helping to design/conceptualize mobile marketing vehicles for Toyota, Adidas, Clif Bar, Sony and more. And, with the help of a few willing friends (who agreed to help at a bar…always happens this way doesn’t it?!) the buildout was going to be a great journey and experiment for all of us.
Factory Settings: 4.5 months after putting the deposit down on the new 144” wheelbase, 2500 4 cylinder 2015 Mercedes Sprinter it finally showed up during the first week of May… and I was 1500 miles away in CA doing Tour of The Unknown Coast. Why so long to get the van???
We wanted swivel seats from the factory, a particular color, no factory installed radio or backup camera (these items we saved money on by doing an aftermarket Kenwood system, which we love). The factory installed swivel seats are what really set the timing back as it’s not a highly requested option. They make a big difference in overall life in the van. The other reason for buying them from the factory was their height. Factory swivel sweats are 2” shorter than aftermarket seats, making it easier for Pamela to drive and keeping the seats under warranty! We wanted the 144” so we could be agile in moving around bigger cities and parking in a standard parking space. All worth the wait. During those 4.5 months I researched and researched some more and I became a valued customer of Amazon Prime! It’s a great place for one-stop shopping for all those little and big things you need.
Requirements + Wish List for the build out:
It had to be modular (removable bed, kitchen, storage etc.)
This van is my everyday vehicle and I need to use it for work and play
Keep #PennyLove (Boxer dog) happy and comfortable (i.e., cool in the summer temps)
Want the feeling of being on/in a boat, not a coffin
Room for 2 road bikes
Use a large fridge for prolonged habitation
Enough power to run a Vitamix (surge 780 watts)
It’s not a lot to ask for, right?! Just a few simple items. The biggest brainteaser was how to make things modular so we can use the bench seat when were not on the road for long stretches or a short weekend get away. This was also a hurdler for the outfitters as they generally don’t do builds of that nature.
Building Materials + Appliances:
FatMat for sound dampening
a little goes a long way. No need to place it all over the floor, walls or ceiling. Just a few little patches goes a very long way
Order from Amazon and it comes with a knife to cut it and a roller for applying it!
Refletix: used to help with insulating the van. I used this as the primary source of insulating the floor. I used it in combination with Thinsulate on the ceiling and walls. The purpose behind it is to help reflect some of the heat, so it’s best NOT to place it directly against the skin of the vehicle, otherwise it will transfer some.
Thinsulate: I didn’t want to use any fiberglass insulation. Denim insulation was an option as well, but after lots of discussion with my friend Chad, we both (he ordered a 170” wheelbase) choose to order Thinsulate in bulk for our builds. This is great stuff. It’s non-allagenic and it’s easy to cut and tear.
Fridge: One of the things we strongly agreed on, besides taking Penny with us, was that we wanted a large fridge. We like our food and it seemed to make sense so twe could stock up on stuff vs. having to shop every other day or so. After doing lots of digging and looking at suggestions from other builds we choose the Isotherm fridge. I can say that it was the right choice. Its been running now for over 2 months straight and it only draw 5amps out of the house battery (connected to the 160w solar panel…love free electricity/power).
Vented Fan: We went big here and choose the top of the line FAN-tastic Vent model, which has the rain sensor (shutdown when it’s raining) and a thermostat, allowing us to set the temp of the van mostly for PennyLove’s comfort while we are away from the van.
Sink: We wanted a sink even with the galley kitchen being modular, meaning we’d have no pipes to worry about freezing in the winter. I originally wanted to use a hand pump system = no power needed = hassle free. After thinking about it and realizing we had free power (ie, solar), I decided to go with a small 1gpm RV pump. I found it online at Camping World. Luckily their store in Madison carried the pump and I was able to buy it in person. The system we have in place is great. The pump runs off the house battery, powered by solar, and it only uses 2amp. For water, I used a 7 gallon potable water jug and a 3 gallon gray water jug. The rule of thumb is your grey water should be larger than your freshwater. But, I know that we’re using more water to fill our riding bottles with and making coffee with vs. washing dishes with. I chose the sink based on aesthetics and functionally. The closing lid allows for greater counter space and the size of the sink is great for doing dishes and filling bottles.
I removed the factory flooring and side panels saved all the screws, bolts etc and placed them in bags with corresponding labels for easier reinstallation
I placed FatMat on the floor and on the walls and ceiling. I also placed FatMat under the driver and passenger floors.
I installed Refletix and Thinsulate on the walls and floor where applicable. Once the floor had its layer of Refletix, I reinstalled the floor, crew seat brackets and seat. The walls I left as is, as I wanted to leave it open for Barry at Vanworks to place his wires for the installation of the solar panels, fan and corresponding electrical. In addition to what Barry and his team needed access to, I needed to also install wiring for the ceiling lights, outlets we wanted by the bed and for the fridge, water pump and Vitamix.
In all it took me about 1.5 days with some help from Chad, to install the FatMat, Refletix and Thinsulate. At one point during the process, Chad and I were so dialed that we had measured all the pieces we needed in-advance of cutting them, that I was cutting them all and he would retrieve and install them. It’s true, one should always measure 4x and cut once! Things are the same on both sides of the van; therefore, once we measured we had a template (saved us a ton of time and brain damage).
Additional climate control:
Pamela used the leftover Refletix and make our window covers for the rear, side and driver/passanger windows. To make them look pretty on the inside she went to the local fabric shop and pick up 3 different patterns. The patterns matched each section, making it easy for us to remember what cover goes where. She sewed super duty magnets to the edges of the covers making the finished cover very easy to install and remove from the window!
The Buildout: Walls, galley kitchen, sliding door side cabinets/table, ceiling, ceiling lights, ceiling cabinet.
My friend David agreed to help buildout the van, while at a bar in Boulder, where all good ideas are born. David is a jack of all trades and for the past 20 years has owned and operated a construction company, Nimbus Construction in Madison, WI. With David’s desire to help on the build and his access to equipment and knowledge, I knew that this would be a fun trip to Madison. After all my research on building outfitters I also noticed that there were no builders in the midwest, which means there is an opportunity for David and his team to capitalize on the void.
David and I worked out a 5 day window to do the buildout of galley kitchen, installation of the pine beetle kill ceiling, cabinets and additional storage. Before I showed up to Madison, I had purchased as many materials as I could. This was done to help speed up the process and reducing our visits to the local hardware store. Given that this would be our first Sprinter Van buildout, we knew there would be a few things that could go wrong but we weren’t worried about their severity. Once I arrived at David’s house we hit the ground running. After a few minutes of pleasantries we headed to his shop to unload the van of the pine beetle flooring which would be the ceiling, the bench seat, and other items I brought. From there it was off to the hardware store to buy our needed plywood for the side walls and other wood we’d use to make the kitchen and additional cabinets. To keep with the homey theme, we purchased a butcher block countertop, which we only cut lengthwise to be used on two sections, ripping wasn’t an option as it measured perfectly to fit the top of the fridge.
One of the first items we did sketch out was the size of the kitchen and side door cabinets and the layout the electrical needs/wants. David’s friend Nick, who does work for him, raised his hand to help with this. To keep things simple and reduce cost and headaches we used a heavy-duty gauge extension cord as our base wiring. We cut one end of the plug off, exposing the wires and…bang you’ve got yourself a pre-wired and weather proof wrapped electrical source. The cord is as easy as pie to manipulate through the framework of the Sprinter as well, helping to speed up the process of overall electrical install. The other item I choose to save some time on and be resourceful with was the ceiling lights. I choose to tap into the existing lighting allowing us to use the timer, dimmer and on/off functions which came from the factory. All we needed to do was cut the wires to tap into the system. This allowed us to pretty up the lights and to use LED vs. the crappy halogens which came with the van. I found the lights at Camping World but bought them on Amazon for a few dollar less. The best part about the lights is that we’re able to turn them on and off individually by tapping them and they also swivel allowing for greater illumination. Knowing that the ceiling lights wouldn’t be on all the time I also bought some pretty sweet magnetic LED’s and a set of remote operated LED’s which we mounted under the ceiling cabinets. These lights are great for reading in bed since the ceiling mounted lights are very very bright making it hard for one to read and one to sleep #compromise
Woodwork: The workflow of all the wood work (lots of wood in the van) was pretty dialed. We had a good system in place. David tackled the ceiling installation, with the occasional help from Sam and I. Sam worked his magic and math skills by creating the cabinets, galley kitchen and the piece-de-resistance, the stove cabinet. What did I do? Well, I stained and painted all the wood and brainstormed the layout, making for some fun moments between Sam and I as we tried to figure how to to make it work. We all lived by the rule of measure 4x, then cut, then install. We also made sure to treat the butcher block (sourced at the local hardware store) before installing it to the kitchen framework. The overall buildout was pretty seamless even with a lack of straight lines inside the Sprinter….lots of curves and angles to pay attention to. The one piece we built that gave us the biggest sense of accomplishment was the passenger cabinet that holds the camp stove. This piece was inspired by watching hours of Tiny House Nation, which provided me with inspiration for other ways to maximize space and storage within the van. For this cabinet we wanted to create storage on both sides and make the space functional. The main objective was to create usable space for the camp stove. We created a drawbridge which is supported with little chains strong enough to hold the camp stove (making a table). On the inside of the cabinet we placed sheetmetal. The idea behind this was to allow for a place the cooking utensils could live vs. pulling them in and out of a bin all the time. After some experimentation and my desire to use super magnets, I found that the camp stove can be held firmly in place by placing two magnets on the stove and then letting those stick to the sheetmetal. The same holds true (pun intended) for storing the small 2lb propane tanks. The magnets works great for keeping them from moving/bouncing around. As proud as I am of the entire buildout, the look and feel of the Sprinter (I love the Pine Beatle Kill, well the look, not the destruction of forests), my favorite piece is the cabinet the camp stove lives in. It showcases creativity and how important having pieces that are multifunctional in such a small space. The fact that it’s modular is icing on the cake.
The kitchenette, fridge and stove cabinet are removable and held in place via thumb screws mounted in to the floor, which can be covered up when they are not in the van.
Space: The one piece worth the expense was the awning. This is easy to install (as long as you like looking at photos with no words) and it doubles your living space! After doing some research we landed on the Fiamma F65s awning in dark grey. This of course is to match the van! The awning provides 64sqft of additional living space, shade and soothing access to the outdoors. It’s a great addition to the vehicle and for our sanity while truly camping off the grid.
Time Frame: The entire build that took place in Madison totaled 200 man hours over 5 days between 3 guys (David, Sam and I). Yes they were long day and we had some rain to deal with, luckily we had a shop bay to park in, allowing us to stay the course. We all learned a ton and David and Sam are primed for their next build. I’d call them quick as they are getting lots of inquiries for builds.
In addition to the 200 hours, I’d estimate that I dedicated 14hrs to just the prep work of insulting the van and installation of FatMat, Refleix etc. This was a great time saver for when we did tackle the overall buildout.
I’m sure that I may have forgot to list something in the above buildout. If there is something particular you want to know more about just leave a comment and I will answer as best I can, or just create a new post. Happy to help someone else out doing a build since we relied heavily on the experience from others. The entire process of researching, daydreaming, acquiring, and building the van out has been fantastic. Now the real fun part begins. Tweaking the little things inside the van which make living in it easier for us and for Penny Love to feel as safe and comfortable as possible (she’s well on her way of LOVING the van).
The Name: Well, this thing looks and feels like a boat, so we think she needs a name.So far we’ve come up with Metal Baby, which is pretty funny (and true!) and Sprinter Pants (family joke). After those two ideas, nothing has struck a cord. Let us know your thoughts.
Pamela and I are very lucky to have some amazing friends & family who helped us along the way, not just in the buildout (can’t thank David and Sam enough), but for supporting us in purchasing the Sprinter and encouraging us to live out the dream.
Until next time, thanks for reading and for supporting the buildout with all your social media love, comments etc. Hugs. The Roaming Robos!
Here are photos of the van build out and of Pamela, Penny and I enjoying the van!
(Upgrades to initial build are here)
Details about keeping our dog comfy and cool are here